When I was in high school, I cut one class and got caught. It wasn’t even a hard class like Chemistry or Calculus. I ditched an afternoon class of Leather Shop because I was bored and frankly not very good at cutting and stitching together pieces of former cows. For many years, I had to fold the dollar bills that I put into my “custom-made” but severely undersized leather wallet. The ill-shaped leather backpack that I made gathered dust on the top shelf of my closet for years until one fatal spring-cleaning day. Nevertheless, I paid my debt to society for cutting class by attending early morning detention and enduring the remaining leather shop classes until I graduated later that year.

While not excusing goofing-off, there is something structurally wrong with our education system when a large percentage of high school students are board in their last year. Specifically, once a student is admitted to college or has submitted all their college applications, their senior year grades and courses are rarely factored into admissions decisions. Without an infrastructure to motivate these seniors to stay focused and excited about learning, this opportunity to help shape responsible maturing citizens can easily be missed.

Senior year plays a critical role in a high school student’s transition from school to life, citizenship, the work world, or higher education. And yet our institutions of higher learning and high schools are allowing senior year to become a wasteland for both students and teachers. For many seniors, 70% of whom will go on to higher education, preparation for college takes a back seat to finding a part-time job, watching television, or hitting the almost non-stop party circuit. And many will regress academically. And because most colleges do not inform these students about the academic preparation needed to pass their freshman placement exams, many will flunk. Some colleges in California place up to 50% of incoming freshman into remedial classes in English ad Math, which ends up costing families extra tuition over time.

Some academic leaders are not starting to say that students and society are paying a high price for this educational neglect. Stanford Professor Michael Kirst points out that we should not blame the students for this problem, which results from a major structural problem – the separation and autonomous operation of the K-12 school system and institutions of higher education.

Kirst argues in his recent article “Overcoming the High School Senior Slump,” that students are acting rationally in a system that takes away their incentive to study. The majority of colleges admit high school students based on their previous years’ performance, without even looking at senior grades. Senior classes are not geared toward a seamless transition to college work, nor is the senior year treated as a culmination of high school curriculum.

Members of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year, in their report “The Lost Opportunity of Senior Year (January 2001), points out that all students, including those who are not going to college, need the “new basic skills” of the Knowledge Economy. These skills include a high level of reading, algebra, word processing, problem-solving, effective oral and written communication, and the ability to work well in groups. And since in America, skills correlate with earnings, the failure of a student to obtain the “new basic skills” will doom him or her to a series of dead-end jobs. For many students from poor families the “tyranny of low expectations” can be devastating. The Commission warns: “the nation faces a deeply troubling future unless we transform the lost opportunity of the senior year into an integral part of students’ preparation for life, citizenship, work and further education.”

In addition, senior year is a prime opportunity to make sure students have the many practical skills necessary to become independent. Why not make sure they are able to balance a checkbook, keep a personal budget, file tax returns and interact with the government entities that will affect their lives?

I believe that we can end senioritis in our area. And we don’t have to pass a bill in Sacramento or Washington D.C. to do it. A good first step would be for the leadership of our high schools, community colleges, California State University, the University of California, and major corporations to work together to ensure that there are incentives for high school students to use their senior year productively. High school students in our area would know exactly what is expected of them in college and avoid the time- and money-wasting remedial classes. And all the seniors, whether or not they are going to college, would be better prepared for the independent world of work and community involvement.

Who knows, with more coordination and the development of shared goals between our high schools, local colleges and businesses, we may just find ourselves with fewer amateurs with funning looking leather wallets and many more prepared and engaged citizens.

August 27, 2001